A few years ago, I heard Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Trained Mind, speak at a conference. She’s an old college professor of mine, and also a public figure, who doesn’t talk much publicly about her family. But in this session, she got more personal than usual, explaining that older parents are supposed to share whatever wisdom they have with younger ones.
I’m a decade or so behind her, and I’m so grateful she did. That was years ago, and what she said that day changed the way I thought about myself, and about my kids. About other people’s kids, too, really.
That day, Susan said, “Every family with three or more kids has one kid that they just can’t figure out.” (I’m curious to hear your thoughts—is this your experience, as a child or as a parent?)
I have four kids, and do I ever relate.
The odd kid out
The odd kid out isn’t necessarily a social misfit; instead this is the kid who isn’t like her siblings, the one who doesn’t fit neatly into your family system. There are many possibilities for why this kid doesn’t groove, among them:
• slower chronological development (either physically or emotionally)
• different ways of processing information
• lack of awareness of social cues
• different priorities
These kids tend to have their struggles early in life: their struggle is to find their place.
The good kid
The good kid, on the other hand, is the one who seems to practically raise himself. This is the kid who doesn’t put a foot out of line, who doesn’t get his name written on the board, who gets his homework done early and puts himself to bed on time.
That all sounds great, so what’s the problem?
• Many good kids operate out of fear.
• They’re afraid people will reject them if they fail, so they never fail.
The good kids tend to struggle in the middle. These are the kids who sail through adolescence drama-free, only to have a massive breakdown in their early thirties.
(I was a good kid.)
Bringing it home
It’s normal for kids to need help understanding who they are, what they’re like, what they need. Teaching kids to self-evaluate is key, especially for the kids who are struggling to find their place in the world.
Many kids—especially the kids who are a little out of step with the world, or even with their families—aren’t particularly self-aware. But self-awareness is a huge life skill: that’s what keeps you from having an epic meltdown about the state of your whole entire life because you’re hungry.
What those kids (and let’s be honest: some grown-ups) need is a way to think about themselves.
How do you do that? I was overjoyed when Susan validated my inner personality geek, and told us, Do every personality quiz you can. Then celebrate the results, no matter what they are: That’s what type you are! Isn’t that cool?
Personality assessment tools give people language to talk about what’s going on in their heads, their work, their relationships. These tools help people see patterns and problems, strengths and potential shortcomings. I wrote a whole book about how understanding personality—your own and others—will change your life; it’s called Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, and it comes out on September 19. My experience writing this book has only deepened my appreciation for the difference these tools can make in your life.
But most kids won’t find those tools on their own. It’s up to us, the grown-ups, to point them in the right direction.
I’m also grateful that Susan made it clear that it’s not “better” to be a good kid, or the odd duck. The good kid and the odd kid out both have the same distance to go. It’s easy for parents to think that the odd kids out are (unpleasantly) challenging and the good kids are pure joy to parent, but that’s just not so. Both these kids have their struggles, but those struggles look different, and crop up at different times.
I’m eager to hear about your experience with this. Tell me about growing up as the good kid or the odd kid out, or the sibling to one. Parents: do you see these dynamics at work in your own family? I’d love to hear the details. Feel free to keep your comments anonymous.